Mortgage subsidies – it’s not the young who win

“It is disappointing that the country cannot liberate itself from the desire to subsidise borrowing to finance house purchases,” complains Martin Wolf in his review of George Osborne’s autumn statement. “Why should the government subsidise people to speculate on property prices?”

Wolf fails to understand the logic of the new policy. It’s not the first time buyer who is really being subsidised by mortgages backed by the British government. They are simply entering an overpriced market, and taking on debt that will strangle some of them in what Wolf expects to be a ‘lost decade’.

Instead, it is those who are exiting the market who will benefit if the Chancellor’s largesse succeeds in propping up prices – that’s the elderly who are dying and passing on the proceeds from a house sale to their children (who tend to be in late middle age), or the baby boomers themselves as they downsize in preparation for retirement.

Any government policy that keeps house prices artificially high benefits the old not the young. Of course, banks will do quite nicely from government-backed 95% mortgages as well – they can relax lending standards and we all know where that leads.

How policy encourages the banks to fleece us

Yesterday’s El País carried what to me was an extraordinary story about repossessions of Spanish homes. The recession has seen the number of repossessions in Spain rising to 100,000 per year, but far from suffering for making dumb loans, the country’s mortgage laws allow banks to profit from their clients’ failure to pay.

Repossession policy dictates that if a propert has to be handed over to a bank because its owner cannot keep up with mortgage payments, the bank must endeavour to sell it at auction, and use the proceeds to reduce the amount owed. In the current, stagnant environment, however, nobody is buying, even at repossession auctions, and much of what is on offer goes unsold. Such an eventuality does not perturb the banks, however – indeed, they are probably delighted not to sell – for in the event that a property fails to attract a buyer at auction, the bank gets to keep it for 50% of what it is adjudged to be worth.

Let us say, therefore, that someone has taken out a €100,000 mortgage on a house which at the time the bank judged to be worth €100,000 (many banks, of course, made 100% loans during the boom), and that after paying, say, €10,000 plus interest of that loan the debtor loses his job – not uncommon in a country with 23% unemployment – and can no longer make his monthly payments. The debtor now owes €90,000. The bank tries to sell the house at auction, with a reserve of €75,000 (the Bank of Spain says official house prices have fallen 17%, and the bank knocks off a bit extra to make it look like it is keen to sell). Nobody is interested. The house goes unsold. The bank acquires the house for €41,500 (50% of the official value of €83,000), and the debtor, who is now homeless and jobless, still owes it €48,500, plus interest.

It won’t have escaped your notice that this is a remarkably good deal for the bank. First, it received €10,000 plus plenty of interest – let’s estimate a further €10,000 – from the hapless debtor before he lost his job. Second, it is still owed nearly €50,000 plus interest. And third, it has acquired a house worth perhaps €60,000 (if we ignore the overoptimistic official figures) for just over $40,000. Even if the debtor now does the sensible thing and tells the bank where it can put the rest of the debt, therefore, the bank will have lost just 20% of the loan. Most debtors, however, will not be so bold, and will attempt to pay back the rest of the loan for fear of losing their hard-won creditworthiness. In the latter cases, the bank will have made a profit on the original €100,000 loan of €20,000 plus several additional tens of thousands in interest, so unless significantly more than half of debtors tell the bank where to go it cannot lose on these deals.

Of course, the above example is theoretical and the actual figures are likely to vary somewhat – the bank might sell the house for €70,000, adding another ten grand to its haul, and there are costs of selling to account for too. But unless I have miscalculated it does not seem too far-fetched. Under the current policy, banks benefit by making bad loans. Since most people will try to pay back the loan even though they no longer own their property, banks can easily withstand a few bad debtors, and it is not surprising in an industry where profit rules that their vetting policy is less than rigorous. A couple of commentators in the El País article recommend raising the 50% of the value at which the bank acquires the property to 70% – this would seem a bare minimum to avoid the moral hazard created by the current law. The protesters in the 15-M movement rightly blame the banks for causing the housing crisis, but where policy puts them in a no-lose situation it is inevitable that many will take advantage.

UK election debate – the housing crisis

If the BBC leaders’ debate tonight devotes more time to bigotgate than to housing, I am going to dedicate the rest of my days to working for the Corporation’s demise.

Britain’s unsustainable housing market is at the root of many of the country’s problems and could wreak appalling damage on voters during the next parliament. It must feature in the debate.

Someone should start by reminding Gordon Brown of a promise he made in his first budget speech in 1997:

Stability will be central to our policy to help homeowners. And we must be prepared to take the action necessary to secure it. I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the recovery.

As I argued recently:

When Brown spoke, the average house cost £75k  – about £10k above the early 1990s nadir. A long long boom was just beginning. Prices would peak in February 2008 at an average of… £232k!!!

In other words, Brown promised not to let house prices spiral out of control and then allowed them to treble, during a period when household disposable income increased by only 30% or so.

2007 saw what is often called a housing price crash, but as this graph shows, it was really only a blip.

As the government pumped money into the economy and pushed interest rates to unprecedented low levels, the bubble started to inflate again. House prices are now back to the levels of June 2007.

Second guessing the housing market is a mug’s game, surely this is unsustainable. British houses are overvalued by nearly a third, according to one measure. Worse is the amount of mortgage debt outstanding$1.238 trillion. By comparison, government debt is ‘only’ £950 billion.

Low interest rates and buoyant employment (relative to the economy’s woeful performance) have kept householder’s head above water – but the highly-indebted remain highly vulnerable to any increase in interest rates or to further job losses.

My best case for the housing market is a long period of stagnation (we desperately need lower prices). Worst case would be a sudden, vicious and self-fulfilling collapse. I believe this is currently the most serious economic risk facing the British people (one which is, of course, interrelated to Europe’s sovereign debt problems).

So what do the major parties have to say about this in their manifestos?

  • Labour wants to expand home ownership and exempt all houses under £250k from stamp duty (likely to push house prices up). It says it will build 110k houses over two years (likely to push prices down).
  • The Conservatives promise to exempt first time buyers from stamp duty if their house costs less than £250k. It wants to put communities in charge of planning, which is highly likely to reduce the number of houses built.
  • The Lib Dems plan to use loans and grants to bring 250k empty houses back into use.

Pretty weak beer, all told. No party questions the shibboleth that Britain needs more homeowners. None is prepared to explain how they will manage risks that have been increased by the response to the financial crisis.

Far less do they have policies to fulfil Brown’s promise from 1997 – to end boom and bust in the housing market radical proposals (see my Long Finance paper) to prevent the mortgage market from screwing borrowers every twenty years or so.

So here’s my question for tonight’s debate:

In 1997, Gordon Brown promised he’d never let house prices get out of control again, but then presided over a housing bubble that has left British householders owing £1.2 trillion on their mortgages. In government, what will you do to stop the housing dream from becoming a housing nightmare?

Betting the House – Gresham talk

Thomas Gresham

Yesterday, I was at the wonderful Gresham College for a seminar on housing – I posted some highlights earlier. But here’s a lightly edited version of my talk.

It explores the risks posed by the UK’s partially deflated housing bubble and sets out some radical options for reform (elucidated in more detail in the Long Finance paper from the talk is drawn).

And for those of you don’t know Gresham, I recommend Michael Mainelli’s brief history

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 to 1579) traded cloth and linens between England and the Low Countries at a time when Cambridge and Oxford had a duopolistic hold on higher education in England. A Cambridge man himself (Caius College), if Gresham’s skippers had visited an Oxbridge College they would, at best, have had the door of a college opened to them and then been laughed at in Latin for their ignorance.

If you’re going to backstab some one properly, do it from the front. Sir Thomas died of apoplexy in 1579 bequeathing one moiety of the Royal Exchange to the Corporation of London and the other moiety to the Mercers’ Company, charging them with the nomination of seven Professors to lecture in Astronomy, Divinity, Geometry, Law, Music, Physic and Rhetoric. He required the lectures to be in Latin and, horror horribilis, English. In effect, Sir Thomas, who pursued monopolies himself, used his will of 1575 anti-monopolistically to crack the Oxbridge oligopoly by bribing seven professors to give lectures to the public, in English.

Gresham College is about ‘new learning’. Sir Thomas felt strongly that the ‘new learning’ should be available to those who worked – merchants, tradesmen and ships’ navigators – rather than solely gentlemen scholars. In the 17th century, the Royal Society was founded to explore “natural philosophy”, new learning through experimentation. So, it is no surprise that the Royal Society was founded and housed at Gresham College for half a century (1660 to 1710) and numbered among its associates Gresham Professors Petty, Boyle and Evelyn.